Though born Yisrael Lipkin (in Zagare, Lithuania on November 3, 1810), R’
Yisrael Salanter came to be identified with the city of Salant where he
first achieved renown, and has thus come to be known as R’ Salanter (i.e.,
“the one from Salant”). His father was R’ Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin, who served as
the rabbi of that town and later as the head of the Rabbinic Courts of
Goldingen and Telz, Lithunia; and his mother was Leah Lipkin.
After his marriage to Esther Feiga Eisenstein in 1823, R’ Salanter continued
his studies under R’ Hirsch Broda and most significantly under R’ Yosef
Zundel of Salant, who was a disciple of R’ Chaim Volozhin, the primary
disciple of the Gaon of Vilna. R’ Zundel had a deep and enduring influence
on R’ Salanter’s character; and it was he who had introduced R’ Salanter to
In fact, the story goes that once R’ Zundel was meditating in the forest, as
he often did, when the young Yisrael followed behind him unobtrusively to
see just what he could learn from his teacher in secret. Lost in his
reflections, R’ Zundel didn’t notice anything until a certain point. He
quickly turned around, pointed his finger at the young R’ Yisrael, and
called out ominously, “Concentrate on Mussar, Yisrael” if you want to know
what I’m reflecting on and if you want to grow. The remark made a deep
impression on the young man who took it as a sign from Above; and he
remarked later on that that was the moment that inspired him to indeed study
and concentrate on Mussar texts as his life’s work.
R' Salanter was appointed Rosh Yeshiva of Tomchai Torah in Vilna about 1842,
and from there he moved to Zarechya where he established his own yeshiva and
lectured for three years. He left Lithuania in 1857 and moved to Prussia to
recover from ill health, and in 1861 he began the publication of the Hebrew
journal "Tevunah" which was devoted to rabbinical law and religious ethics,
but which was discontinued after three months because of lack of funds.
R' Salanter lived for periods in Memel, Königsberg, and Berlin. He
selflessly devoted the last decades of his life to strengthening Torah
observance in Germany and Prussia. Toward the end of his life R’ Salanter
was summoned to Paris to organize a community among the many Russian Jewish
immigrants, and he remained there for two years.
It was Mussar that propelled him to greatness, and Mussar that was his
legacy. We’ll discuss his thoughts on it and so much more in the course of
this study, but we’ll first present four well-known incidents in R’
Salanter’s Vilna period that especially point out the underpinnings of his
righteousness and boldness of spirit.